By Joe Brooks, CWI Founder and Director
We seem to now be at new moment of societal conflict and crisis — playing itself out in a host of ways, politically and socially. But at the root, perhaps we are really facing a crisis of community. Community in this case being most about real relationships — that most foundational of ingredients.
Helping our students connect in thoughtful ways to their local at a time, when by nearly everyone’s estimation, we need to return to the essential roots of relationships and community, suggests more than just handshakes, checks written, or good works to be accomplished.
The deeper impetus here is about rebuilding and extending our ability to work together on important efforts that benefit our communities. Working on important efforts together inherently promotes connection, communication, and understanding — relationships. When we do this across lines of class, race, identity, and issues of social justice, in ways that deepen our experience with and understanding of each other , we move forward as a society. When we include this thinking in education we jump start a better future.
Education is often fixed in outmoded measures of accountability and success (test scores, etc.). Likewise, society may also now be fixated on archaic, supposedly larger measures of growth (GDP, etc.). But these measures take poor account of the human condition. They do not measure the heart nor the will. If there is a measure for evolution we are not collecting data.
Place Based Service-Learning and Educating for Sustainability, when used as an intentional and integrated approach to teaching provides a unique pedagogy and opportunity for making a much needed shift in both our societal and educational paradigms. The outcomes include: a sense of place, empathy, interconnectedness, and altruism — increased humanity. When we have optimism about our ability to accomplish deeper things together we evolve as people. As a defining purpose of education, is there anything better?
Our roots as cultures, within and as part of a larger society, include valuing our collective and individual ability to contribute, appreciating our diversity, and sharing a sense of common cause-purpose. Building a sense of self efficacy among our students, around their own ability to create positive social change, larger and smaller is essential. To not do so contributes to a next generation of apathy, cynicism, and disconnection.
But for all of the enthusiasm I encounter in the schools I work with for this sort of larger thinking, there are clearly serious challenges to doing so. Working recently with university faculty in China, I was struck by both their innate grasp and sense of urgency for this work of society — coupled with a desire to reconnect with the traditional Confucian ethic of transcendent ideals for society. Interestingly, this is echoed in their reverence for the work of John Dewey who traveled extensively in China and is revered there. What comes around, follows a fascinating path.
And about making change in larger educational systems? Changing tires on a moving vehicle is a metaphor that I often use in keynotes and my workshops with teachers and administrators, to describe the difficulty in actually create deeper lasting change in schools and institutions. Any institution or program constantly in motion, especially with the size, scope, pressures, and complexity of many of today’s schools makes for tricky business when one considers making real change.
But I have indeed watched public and independent schools, universities, and community programs revisit and reconnect with their purpose, re-centering their pedagogy around service and “sense of place,” with concrete results, often and as they should, including community members and students deeply in that process.
Building deeper relationships and getting beyond simplistic and sometimes false notions of “community engagement” is at the heart of our work now as educators and as citizens. Offering our students an opportunity from within the very heart of their course of studies to understand our interconnectedness, identify needs, and initiate or be an important part of solutions is the most important thing that we can now focus as educators.
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